Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 14

Azerbaijani President Haidar Aliev has decided to go ahead with a long-delayed visit to Iran. The president’s medical problems last year, on top of disagreements between the two countries on a wide range of issues, had forced him to postpone the visit several times. The absence of top-level contacts, in turn, fueled some long-standing mutual suspicions between Tehran and Baku. Yet both sides managed during this time to maintain an uneasy dialogue and prevent their differences from reaching the point of confrontation. The contentious issues include:

–Azerbaijan’s Western orientation. This has caused Iran to portray Azerbaijan as the main gateway for the penetration of Western powers, particularly the United States, in the Caspian region on Iran’s doorstep. On top of the disagreements over oil projects (see below), Iran objects to Azerbaijan’s plans to develop relations with NATO. Tehran sees eye to eye with Russia on this issue, as most recently evidenced during Iran’s National Security Council Secretary Hasan Ruhani’s visit to Moscow. Ruhani’s discussions with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and other top Russian officials confirmed their common view that “the United States and West European countries are attempting to squeeze Russia and Iran from the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea… It is quite natural that Iran is trying to counteract American plans by maintaining its cooperation with Russia” (RIA, Itar-Tass, IRNA, January 14).

–Caspian Sea legal status and oil projects. Azerbaijan’s and Iran’s views on the legal status of the Caspian Sea are diametrically opposed. Among the riparian states, Azerbaijan is the leading advocate of sectoral division and sovereign rights over offshore mineral deposits in the national sectors. Iran, on the other hand, outdoes Russia in sticking to the principle of indivisibility of the seabed and waters, or at least of shared rights to the mineral resources. Tehran, moreover, opposes the planned construction of the Baku-Ceyhan (Turkey) main oil export pipeline, offering an Iranian route as an alternative. That alternative entails delivering Azerbaijani crude oil to northern Iran for processing at three major refineries there, with Iran then shipping equivalent amounts of its own oil from the Persian Gulf on Azerbaijan’s behalf. This “swapping” arrangement would function as a substitute for a pipeline, seemingly obviating the multibillion dollar costs involved in the Baku-Ceyhan project. The oil volumes involved in such swaps, however, would by definition be modest, corresponding to the consumption and refining capacities of northern Iran, and thus no substitute for the main export pipeline which would take the Azerbaijani oil to international markets.

–Stalled investment projects. Azerbaijan depends largely on Iran for supplying and developing the economy of Nakhichevan, the Azerbaijani exclave which abuts on Iran while separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by a swath of Armenian territory. Supplies do indeed move from Iran to Nakhichevan, but essential investment projects are stalled despite earlier agreements between Baku and Tehran to proceed. Those projects include a gas pipeline, a modern highway and a hydroelectric dam. Nakhichevan, apart from being intrinsically important, also happens to be Aliev’s native region and a bedrock political base. In the main territory of Azerbaijan, a highway from Baku to the Caspian port city of Astara on the border with Iran is another long-discussed joint project that has yet to be launched.

–Tabriz Consulate. Azerbaijan and Iran agreed in 1992 to host each other’s consulates in Nakhichevan and in Tabriz, respectively. Azerbaijan has adhered to its part of the deal, but Iran has not. This issue is a perennial irritant in bilateral relations. Tabriz is the main city in the Azerbaijani-populated northern Iran, a region which some Azerbaijanis describe, for that reason, as Southern Azerbaijan. Iran seems concerned that an Azerbaijani consulate might serve as a focal point for local opposition to the policy of Persianization. Last week some protest activities were reported from Tabriz by irredentist emigres from that region who reside in Baku.

–Political emigres in Tehran and Baku. Iran welcomed last year on its territory Mahir Javadov, one of the leaders of the 1995 abortive coup in Baku against Aliev. Javadov was a senior officer in the OMON special police force which spearheaded the coup, in which Mahir’s brother and OMON commander Rovshan Javadov was killed. From his Iranian haven, Mahir Javadov has been issuing inflammatory–as well as hopeless–appeals for a revolt in Azerbaijan. Tehran in turn displays irritation over activities of Azeri irredentists from Iran in Baku (Yeni Azerbaijan, Azadlyg, Turan, Caspian News, AzadInform, ANS-TV, IRNA, January 12-18).

The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Jonas Bernstein, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the foundation. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at, by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of the Monitor is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation Site Maintenance by Johnny Flash Productions